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Songwriting is a skill that can be improved. Like any other skill, there are techniques to learn, skills to develop, talents to hone. But unlike many other musical skills, songwriting suffers from a lack of obvious resources.
Because songwriting is so personal, people tend to be unwilling to accept the idea of ‘practising’ songwriting or working on your chops. This is holding you back. In 2020, I urge you to pick one of these songwriting books and read it.
Books like ‘Writing Better Lyrics’ by Pat Pattison have been around for ages and have helped thousands of songwriters. In this guide, we’re going to give you the best books on the market right now.
Writing Better Lyrics 2nd Edition – Pat Pattison
Pat Pattison’s second edition of Writing Better Lyrics had to be the first book on our list, because it is both time-tested and recently updated. This second edition came out in 2010.
The book provides effective tools for generating ideas, understanding form and function in a song, and fine-tuning lyrics. It’s a great book for new songwriters, to whom some of this advice will be revolutionary, and it’s great for experienced writers who want to understand songwriting on a theoretical level.
In particular, the book focuses on using sense-bound imagery to enhance a song’s emotional impact on listeners. This is all about putting the listener into your story by giving them lyrics that pique their senses.
Writing Better Lyrics also teaches ways to avoid clichés and create imaginative metaphors and similes. If you’ve ever struggled with expressing a theme that has been expressed before in a unique way, this will give you the tools to tackle that.
Generating effective titles is another theme of the book; using titles to draw in the audience and to come up with new ideas is a great way to get more songs out into the world.
The book has expanded and updated chapters for the musical world we live in today, 50 songwriting exercises, and examples from over 20 chart-topping hits.
Gypsy Dreamers In The Alley – Chris Gantry
Gypsy Dreamers in the Alley is a very modern feeling songwriting book. Written by Chris Gantry, the book is actually a series of stories and musings in the form of Facebook posts. These posts were then condensed into a wonderful and inspiring book.
Getting used to the unconventional structure of the books is easy – we are all used to reading Facebook posts – and once you do, you’ll end up feeling inspired.
The book muses on the art of songwriting and lyric writing. From practical advice on pushing through writers block to philosophical musings on where songs come from (Chris Gantry believes that the songs write you) the book has everything we need to include it in our list.
The Addiction Formula – Friedemann Findeisen
If we know anything about people named Friedemann Findeisen, we know that they would probably write a great book on making hit songs. The Addiction Formula is a truly modern book on songwriting.
Right from the start, the book tells us ‘the 60s are OVER!’. It’s true, modern songwriting is a completely different ballgame. The author spent years analysing modern hits and discovered a pattern he calls ‘The Addiction Formula’.
His technique is not genre specific, it just aims to make your songs appeal to a larger audience while maintaining your creative freedom.
The Addiction Formula includes over 317 techniques with 331 examples of how they can be applied in order to learn them easily and quickly. Designed to appeal to a new generation of songwriters, Friedemann only uses examples from the last 30 years, including songs by Rihanna, Drake, Maroon 5, and Katy Perry.
The book is designed to appeal to a generation of artists who are writing their own music, producing their own music, releasing their own music, and making it work DIY. If that sounds like you, go pick up this book!
The Rap Rebirth Lyricist Guide: How To Write Amazing Hip-Hop Lyrics – Jesse Kramer
Jesse Kramer is the founder of Rap Rebirth, an online service that ghostwrites lyrics for recording artist. This book, The Rap Rebirth Lyricist Guide is a comprehensive guide to writing rap lyrics from a guy who has written a lot of rap lyrics.
The book aims to teach you 4 things:
- How to write anytime. Don’t waste time sitting in front of a blank notepad. This guide will help you condition your mind to beat back writers block over time. Being able to flow and freestyle is a skill that can and should be honed.
- Fundamental skills. Jesse teaches basic skills including song structure, counting bars, writing process, finding rhymes, working on your time/beat, developing a unique personality, and developing a unique flow.
- Advanced technique. The book was written for hip-hop heads. Learn to craft multisyllabic rhymes, rapid-fire verses, and 18 different kinds of wordplay. He also teaches how to optimize your time and money in the studio – a valuable and underrated skill.
- The ‘Rewind Effect. Lastly, Jesse teaches his readers how to combine everything you’ve learned to create special hip-hop moments that make your listeners rewind the track and start it back. He analyses classic hip-hop songs that have this effect, and figures out what makes them tick.
This book is great for anyone from the casual hip-hop fan, to the aspiring artist, to the seasoned artist, and it is written by someone with a unique take on the industry.
How To Be A Hit Songwriter: Polishing And Marketing Your Lyrics And Music
How to Be a Hit Songwriter by Molly-Ann Leikin is now 17 years old, but it remains a tremendously popular book. Part of the reason it was so successful, was the marketing advice contained within. While much has changed in the industry, the advice comes from interviewing music industry powerhouses and much of it still applies.
The author, Molly-Ann Leikin, is a professional songwriting coach. Twelve of her clients are Grammy winners, seventeen of them are Grammy nominees, and over 7000 of her clients have had their work placed in movies, TV shows, games, etc.
How to Be a Hit Songwriter focuses on recognizing good lyrics, good melodies, and good songs while they are being created. It helps guide the process and inform what you will think of the results. If you have a song you think is a hit, this book will help you decide, and can even help you take it to the next level.
The book is marketed as being for ‘advanced songwriters’, but anyone can digest this information. Pick it up for an engaging read, some great interviews, and some good tips and tricks to writing better songs.
The Tao Of Wu – The RZA
From The RZA, the founder of the Wu-Tang Clan, The Tao of Wu is a tour de force, particularly if you are an indie hip-hop or an indie RnB artist. In fact, it should be required reading.
Part memoir, part guide to spiritual enlightenment, and full of lessons about lyricism and life that everyone can learn from. The book is written in beautiful prose that befits The RZA, being a master of the hip-hop lyrics.
Reading the Tao of Wu gives you first-hand knowledge from a legendary artist who has walked many paths, but ultimately became the leader of one of hip-hop’s most successful group. If you feel lost in the industry, confused, or frustrated, this might be the book you need
Six Steps To Songwriting Success: The Comprehensive Guide To Writing And Marketing Hit Songs – Jason Blume
According to Jason Blume, the secret to writing a hit song is as simple as 1-2-3-4-5-6. Six Steps to Songwriting Success is a modern classic written by a man who knows what he is talking about. Blume has had the rare honour of having songs on the Country, Pop, and R&B charts simultaneously!
The book takes you through a 6-step process. From a three-step lyric writing process that is used by the pros, to melody and demo checklists. Finally, the book ends with advice on marketing your songs, which is essential in the modern DIY music scene.
Written with humour and style, this is a great book for the aspiring songwriter.
The War Of Art: Break Through The Block And Win Your Creative Battles – Steven Pressfield
Steven Pressfield’s ‘The War of Art’ breaks down in detail something that I’ve expressed many times in many guides on songwriting – the hard part is sitting down and writing.
Pushing past your inner voices, your creative roadblocks, your physical roadblocks, your mental roadblocks, and just writing is the practice. You have the talent, you can build your skills, you can read a hundred books, but none of it matters if you don’t do the work.
This book is a short and practical guide to achieve creatively. It’s a kick in the butt accompanied by practical advice on writing more, writing better, and curating your creations into something you will feel proud of.
Pressfield himself is a bestselling author, but this wasn’t always his story. As he puts it, he was a ‘clear failure’ for 17 years of his life. He was unable to complete a novel, unable to convince publishers of his work, and collected very few paychecks.
The book is written from the perspective of a novelist but the advice applies to writing lyrics, writing songs, and creation in general. He identifies all of the blocks you’ll face creatively (much to your horror, you’ll recognize them) and then teaches a step-by-step method for overcoming them.
Tunesmith: Inside The Art Of Songwriting – Jimmy Webb
Jimmy Webb is one of history’s greatest songwriters – he’s a multiple Grammy award winner in three categories, a Songwriters Hall of Fame member, and his song ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ is apparently, the third-most performed song in the last fifty years.
Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting is written by an veteran of the music and the book itself was released over two decades ago, but the advice is beautiful and timeless.
The book combines anecdotes, meditation, and advice to break down the creative process into digestible chunks. He works through song construction, chords, lyricism, story-telling, and even a bit of self-promotion and marketing.
It’s also a fascinating glimpse into the golden days of Nashville-style songwriting.
The Art Of Songwriting: How To Create, Think And Live Like A Songwriter – Ed Bell
The Art of Songwriting is Ed Bell’s latest book, and is required reading for the modern songwriter.
In his own words: “What most songwriting guides won’t tell you is that success as a songwriter – however you define it – is as much about how you live your life and the way you see the world as it is about your skill with words and music.”
The book is a guide to life, art, and crafting great songs. It’s about going beyond songwriting tricks, free writing prompts, and other so-called ‘shortcuts’ and teaches you about how to embrace your inner artist and start making your own rules.
Let’s get this straight – it’s not going to let you off the hook for forgoing technique, practice, or work, but it will help you frame your life and your life’s work in a beautiful and artistic way.
This book is a great pairing with The War of Art. It’s all about creating a life that allows you to create and a mindset focused on what matters.
Murphy’s Laws Of Songwriting – Ralph Murphy
Ralph Murray’s aptly titled ‘Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting’ aims to arm songwriters for success by demystifying the songwriting process and opening the door to real professional songwriting.
Ralph Murray himself is a songwriter who has had songs consistently charting throughout the ever-changing decades. He has producer credits on records that have gone platinum. The book is all about getting a listener’s attention, inviting them into your song, and keeping them there.
Hall of Fame songwriter Paul Williams said, in a review of the book, ‘If there was a hit songwriter’s secret handshake, Murphy would have included it’. You just know the book is packed full of great ideas.
How [Not] To Write A Hit Song: 101 Common Mistakes To Avoid For Songwriting Success – Brian Oliver
This teaches you how to write a hit song by teaching you How [Not] To Write a Hit Song. Brian Oliver’s book takes a close look at all essential elements found in the structure, melodies, and lyrics of hit songs.
More importantly, the book analyses the most common errors that songwriters make when using the key components of any songs. Hopefully, you’ll read the book and learn to recognize weaknesses in your own songs, so that you can reword them and make them stronger.
The book writes in an easy, non-technical style so it is easy to understand the common mistakes that any of us could be making.
Oliver goes through everything from common mistakes in basic song structure, to the wrong mental attitude, and bad songwriting environments. He includes flawed choices in titles, melodies, hooks, lyrics, choruses, intros, bridges, pro-choruses, and even in the demo process.
Being able to see other people’s mistakes is a valuable way to inform your own process.
Songwriters On Songwriting: Revised And Expanded – Paul Zollo
Paul Zollo has written several extremely valuable songwriting anthologies. He’s written about songwriting in The Rolling Stone and American Songwriter. In Songwriter’s on Songwriting he get songwriters like Tom Petty, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and Brian Wilson to talk at length about process, inspiration, technique, and more.
The expanded version we linked to includes ten new interviews with Alanis Morisette, Lenny Kravitz, Lou Reed, and others. In total, the book has interviews from 62 of the greatest songwriters of all time – all aiming to take you to the source of songwriting and offering their thoughts, feelings, and opinions on their art.
Best Songwriting Books For Beginners Upward, Final Thoughts
With the above songwriting books, we aimed to represent every genre of popular music, blues to pop to rock. But because the last one was written in 2003, it leaves out some of today’s pop, hip-hop, and R&B giants. Hopefully he’ll write another book about the songwriting legends of today!